I have been increasingly voicing my displeasure with Jim Benning as the Vancouver Canucks general manager of late.
But Benning has had a very good week this week. I'm still not really seeing Benning's grand vision, but this week was good.
First he signed veteran defenseman Alexander Edler to a very reasonable 2 year, $6 million per year contract. He gave the veteran the respect he deserved with the desired no-trade clause and buyout proof bonus structure. In exchange he kept Edler at a very reasonable price and the desired term for the team. This way they do not have to expose Edler in the Seattle expansion draft, allowing them to protect a younger player.
All said and done, it was a deal that, on both sides, made a whole lot of sense. In these days of free agency, it's not often you can say that.
Benning then used the 10th overall selection to draft Russian star Vasili Podkolzin. It was an announcement that kind of stunned the home town audience and might not prove to be the most popular move this weekend, but it was the right move for the organization. For a GM who is so far without a contract extension and under pressure to return the team to the playoffs this coming year or possibly lose his job, it was not the easy way out. Matt Boldy or even pint-sized Cole Caulfield would have been easier choices to appease the onlookers, though they would not have stepped into the line-up immediately either.
Podkolzin will be viewed as risky by fans because a) the Canucks have not had much luck with Russians since Pavel Bure demanded to be traded more than 20 years ago and b) Podkolzin is under contract in the KHL for 2 more years. Impatient fans will have to wait at least that long to see what they got this weekend.
But it was the right move because Podkolzin was the best player available at the 10th pick. History very well might prove otherwise, but at this stage no prospect remaining has the tool kit that Podkolzin has. He is a pure goal scorer with a nasty, physical edge to him. If his name was Johnny Smith and he played in Kamloops, fans would love this guy.
But he's not. He's in Russia and will be for a while. Not that any other prospect at the 10 spot would make immediate returns anyway. So he has some time for his game to mature and to learn English.
In a best case scenario, Podkolzin may prove to be a new era's Jaromir Jagr. I'm not saying he's anywhere near as good as Jagr or his game even resembles JJ's. I'm thinking back to the 1990 NHL draft when the top two prospects were billed as Mike Ricci and Petr Nedved, with Owen Nolan and Keith Primeau rising fast in their draft years. History shows us the draft order went Nolan, Nedved, Primeau, Ricci, but clearly the best player available that year was the fifth overall pick, Jaromir Jagr.
Jagr would have very likely been the top overall pick in a landslide that draft year, and history clearly shows he should have been. But back then Jagr's release date from the still Communist state of Czechoslovakia was unknown. He was not expected to come to North America for at least a couple years, and possibly for quite a while beyond that.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins did the right thing and drafted the best player available. As it turned out, the Penguins were able to secure his playing rights and freedom for the 1990-91 season.
Jagr of course went on to help the Penguins with back-to-back Stanley Cups, as well as winning five NHL scoring titles (including four in a row from 1998 to 2001), three Pearson (now Lindsay) awards, and a Hart trophy. Jagr still plays back home in the Czech Republic, and he exited the NHL as the second highest scoring player of all time, behind only Wayne Gretzky.
Vasili Podkolzin will very likely not have a career as good as Jaromir Jagr's, but he could prove to a better player than some of those chose ahead of him. If so, that's a very good thing for the Canucks one day, whether Jim Benning is still around or not by then.